Court Battles

Appeals court revives House lawsuit against Trump border wall

A federal appeals court in Washington, D.C., revived a lawsuit by House Democrats challenging the Trump administration’s authority to use military funds for a border wall on Friday.

In a 3-0 decision, the appeals court reversed a lower court’s dismissal of the case. Friday’s ruling means the House has the right to sue. The case will be sent back to the trial court level.

The House filed its lawsuit last year, claiming President Trump’s use of a national emergency to divert military funds for border wall construction unconstitutionally bypassed Congress’s authority to appropriate funds.

U.S. District Judge Trevor McFadden, a Trump appointee, dismissed the case in 2019, ruling that the House lacked standing to sue over the national emergency order that allowed Trump to divert military funds to the border wall.

The appeals court said Friday that the Trump administration “cut the House out of its constitutionally indispensable legislative role” of handling appropriations.

“To put it simply, the Appropriations Clause requires two keys to unlock the Treasury, and the House holds one of those keys. The executive branch has, in a word, snatched the House’s key out of its hands. That is the injury over which the House is suing,” the three-judge panel on the D.C. Circuit wrote.

The judges consisted of one Reagan appointee and two Obama appointees.

A ruling in favor of the administration “would fundamentally alter the separation of powers by allowing the Executive Branch to spend any funds the Senate is on board with, even if the House withheld its authorizations,” they wrote in their opening.

“Expenditures made without the House’s approval—or worse, as alleged here, in the face of its specific disapproval—cause a concrete and particularized constitutional injury that the House experiences, and can seek redress for, independently,” the judges added.

The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

It is unclear what practical effect it would have if Democrats ultimately prevail in their lawsuit.

The Supreme Court has allowed the Trump administration to use defense funds amid litigation in the case, despite a California-based court’s ruling that the scheme is unconstitutional.

Disputes over Trump’s financing tactic arose early last year after he declared a national emergency at the southern border in an effort to free up additional funding for his signature project. Trump’s move came after a congressional spending bill allocated some $1.3 billion for border security, which fell short of the nearly $5 billion Trump said was needed.

Trump then reallocated $2.5 billion in funding that Congress appropriated for defense and military uses, sparking several lawsuits.

A federal district court in California last year temporarily halted the use of the reappropriated funds. But the Supreme Court in July 2019 stayed that order, allowing the administration to use defense funds for the construction project while the appeals process plays out.

On appeal, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in California in July ruled against Trump’s financing maneuver. A divided three-judge panel found that the administration had violated the Appropriations Clause of the Constitution, which gives Congress the exclusive power of the purse.

In a 5-4 ruling last month, the Supreme Court declined to let the 9th Circuit’s decision take effect.

Justice Stephen Breyer, writing in dissent on behalf of the court’s four-member liberal wing, said he feared the majority’s ruling “may operate, in effect, as a final judgment.”

Updated at 12:18 p.m.

Tags appeals court Border wall California Donald Trump Stephen Breyer Supreme Court

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